One of the best things about books is that they can transport us to another world. We get to travel back in time, solve mysteries, or go on an adventure. We immerse into a story and when we close the book, we either wish we could live in the world we’ve just experienced or, otherwise, are glad that the story was just that–a story. But then there are some novels where the line between fact and fiction becomes astonishingly blurry. That’s when you begin to ask yourself: wait, could this really happen?

The Handmaid’s Tale is just one brilliant example.

Margaret Atwood is always keen to insist that what she’s writing is “speculative fiction” as everything she imagines has either already happened or would at least be possible to happen in the present. Before writing The Handmaid’s Tale, she made a rule to herself that she wouldn’t include anything in the story that wasn’t based on facts. In an interview with the Penguin Random House, Atwood talked about the moments in history that had inspired her writing. And, in fact, there are a lot. Here are some of the most important ones:

The Handmaids

In the story, handmaids are fertile women whose sole job is to provide high-ranking men and their (supposedly) infertile wives with a child. According to Atwood, the idea of the handmaids was inspired by a fundamentalist Christian group in New Jersey called “The People of Hope.” The cult, founded in 1975, called women “The Handmaidens of God” and expected them to be subservient to men.

Abortion and Birth Control

In Gilead, the state has full control over women’s bodies. Abortions have been outlawed and birth control is banned as women are simply expected to have children. The inspiration for this came from laws that were passed in the 1960s in Romania. In 1966, Romanian President Ceausescu banned birth control and abortion to increase his country’s population and so boost the economy. Women were expected to have at least four children, and they had to have pregnancy tests each month.

Dropping Birth Rates

At the time Atwood wrote the novel, Canada’s birth rate was actually dropping. Worried conservatives thus publicly encouraged families to have more children. Unlike in the novel, however, the dropping rate wasn’t so much a consequence of infertility than the fact that more women entered the workforce.

The Wall and The Eyes

Atwood began writing the story when she lived in West Berlin in the early 1980s. This was a time Germany was split into two states–democratic West Germany and communist East Germany–which were physically divided by a wall. Atwood herself said that the mood she experienced in divided Berlin as well as trips she took to the other side of the wall (to East Germany, former Czechoslovakia and Poland) impacted her writing: “I experienced the wariness, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people might convey information, and these had an influence on what I was writing.” (NY Times)

Feminist Movement

Through flashbacks to her youth we learn that Offred’s mother was an early feminist activist. In the 1980s, when Atwood wrote the book, the gains feminists of the 1970s had achieved had come under attack following the election of Ronald Reagan and the rise of religious Conservatism.

National Homelands

The novel’s resettlement of black people to “national homelands” bears similarities to racially-segregated homelands set up during Apartheid in South Africa.

Though most of these events happened way back in the past, that doesn’t mean this couldn’t happen in the 21st century. In fact, with everything going on in the world right now, it seems like we’re not moving away, but rather towards Gilead. Only that our reality isn’t a book we can close and be glad that what we’ve experienced was, after all, just a story.

Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale? Do you think we’re moving closer to Gilead? Let me know in the comment section below!


5 thoughts on “Between Fact and Fiction: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

  1. I’m not a fan of dystopian fiction but I read this one a few months back and quite enjoyed it. I haven’t seen the TV series but it’s filmed not far from where I live. We often walk by “the wall” when I visit my mum. I do think we are, in some ways, moving in the wrong direction. As women, we need to stand up and fight for the equality we’ve worked so hard to achieve.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really need to read this book. I saw the tv show (looking away for all the sex scenes cause it was a little much for me), but I love the concept and dystopia is my niche. Nice post, friend! 💛💛

    Liked by 1 person

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